Rincon: Residents are tired of being "held hostage" by train blockages.
Rincon: Residents are tired of being "held hostage" by train blockages.
Deron Neblett

Going off the Rails

The baby did not have his usual vigorous appetite. In fact, he refused to eat at all on that February day. He was also running a fever. Greg Rincon and his wife decided not to take any chances with their 13-month-old, and packed him into their SUV for what should have been a quick trip to the doctor's.

The Rincons drove from their East End home onto nearby Telephone Road, and immediately confronted a familiar obstacle: a freight train sitting like a steel wall smack in the middle of the street. The Rincons had been through this drill enough to know that all the streets sliced by the East Belt track would be blocked indefinitely by this massive chain of tanker and hopper cars. Their only choice was to turn around, hit I-45 and reconnect with Telephone farther south, a detour that would add some 15 minutes to their journey.

"Here we are trying to make a straight line to the doctor's office, and we get derailed," Rincon says. "It was somewhat of an emergency."

Luckily the doctor was able to see them almost immediately. To the Rincons' relief, the child had nothing more than a mild stomach virus. The doctor prescribed antibiotics and sent them on their way. But the sense of relief soon gave way to renewed frustration on the way home, when they found themselves blocked by the same train, this time on the other side.

"Man, it just irritates me," says 35-year-old Rincon, executive director of the Eastwood/Broadmoor Area Community Development Corporation.

Rincon and his neighbors are on the cusp of even greater frustration. At a time when they hoped that paralyzing train traffic in their neighborhood was a fading remnant of the area's industrial past, the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway Company and four chemical firms are seeking permission to build a new rail line that would feed even more traffic into residential areas already plagued by train blockages.

The San Jacinto Rail Limited, as the partnership between Burlington Northern and the chemical companies is known, would create a new line, connecting the Bayport Industrial District with the old Galveston, Houston & Henderson line that runs parallel to Highway 3. The partnership views the railroad as a way to bring competitive shipping rates to the industrial district, which presently operates under the monopolistic control of the Union Pacific Railroad Company.

Residents along the proposed line view it less as a harbinger of competition than as a bearer of toxic freights, chronic inconvenience and fear. Hundreds of homes and dozens of schools sit near the line. All it would take is a single derailment to "wipe out half the town," in the ominous words of Eloise Smith, mayor of South Houston.

These residents have mounted a scrappy campaign to stop the project in its tracks. Yet for all the hand-wringing, the final decision about the controversial project lies with officials far away in Washington, D.C., who are keeping a bemused and increasingly alarmed eye on the growing opposition in Houston.

The Bayport Industrial District is home to more than two dozen chemical and plastic plants spread across a sci-fi landscape of grids, reactors and towering stacks. The chemical industry grew up on the back of the railroads and continues to use this mode of transportation almost exclusively to move its products around the United States.

The Union Pacific railroad acquired the golden goose of Bayport in 1996, when it purchased the Southern Pacific railroad, which previously enjoyed monopoly control over the industrial district. Soon after the merger, bottlenecks began choking the lines in Houston, precipitating a shipping "crisis" that snarled freight traffic throughout the region. It took months for Union Pacific to work out the kinks, and even longer to regain customer confidence.

Today traffic moves in and out of Bayport more smoothly, along a corridor that runs parallel to highways 146 and 225. Companies now complain about price-gouging.

"Union Pacific, having the only service in Bayport, has not provided us with competitive rates," says David Harpole, spokesman for Lyondell Chemical Company, one of the four chemical firms vying for the new track. "That cost has to be passed on to our customers."

While companies can take their charges of price-gouging to federal authorities, Lyondell, Equistar, ATOFINA and Basell USA -- along with Burlington Northern -- decided to go one better and build a line of their own. In August, their San Jacinto Rail partnership sent its application to the Surface Transportation Board for a 13-mile, $80 million line that would connect Bayport to the old GH&H line near Ellington Field. The San Jacinto group pitched a small-scale enterprise that would entail one train to and from Bayport a day.

As word leaked out about the project, startled residents up and down the proposed line believed the plan wasn't as benign as San Jacinto said. Homeowners in Clear Lake "never expected to have a toxic train in their backyard," explains Houston City Councilmember Shelley Sekula-Rodriguez. For their part, people in the train-choked East End viewed even one more locomotive on their snarled streets as a provocation. Those in between complained that the San Jacinto partnership was focusing exclusively on the area of new construction, without acknowledging the many thousands of people along the old GH&H line who stood to be affected.

"They act like because their part ends at Highway 3, that's where their responsibility ends. That's outrageous," says Mary Vargo, the hard-charging head of the Southeast Neighborhood Coalition.

While the bulk of the new cargo would be plastic pellets, San Jacinto officials acknowledge that some of the freight would be hazardous chemicals, including ethylene oxide, a highly volatile compound used to make antifreeze and brake fluid, among other things. An ethylene oxide spill could force the evacuation of people up to a mile away from an accident scene. Vargo has identified 32 schools within that one-mile perimeter. A few, like Chavez High School, sit right up against the line.

"We think it's shocking that this would even be considered," she recently told a gathering of city councilmembers and community leaders.

San Jacinto officials argue that their line would be safe. Industry-wide, 99.996 percent of all hazardous shipments arrive safely at their destination, says Harpole, the Lyondell spokesman, who lives in Clear Lake about a mile and a half from the proposed line.

"We have been safely transporting out of Bayport for years without incident and without the public being aware that these products were being transported," he says.

Danny Snell, the district chief for the Houston Fire Department's hazardous materials team, says that residents' fears are understandable but overblown. His team responds to only a handful of train mishaps each year, and those generally involve leaking chemical cars in switching yards.

"These people have legitimate concerns, but I don't think their concerns about that track should be more than other tracks," he says. "There are tons of chemicals moving through this area daily."

Critics believe San Jacinto is playing down the number of trains that would travel on the new line. The partnership calculates that one train a day with 36 to 66 cars would travel each way. That would equal 13,000 to 23,000 loaded rail cars per year, with 1,500 to 7,000 freighting hazardous materials, officials say. Yet the partnership has acknowledged that it would "aggressively" seek business from additional companies in the Bayport complex, potentially increasing traffic significantly.

The mixed message has left residents skeptical.

"How can you spend $80 million on a project that yields one train a day?" asks Greg Rincon, the East End activist.

In January, San Jacinto officials came face-to-face with the communities hell-bent on stopping their train. The meetings took place over two days at the Pasadena Convention Center, with the federal Surface Transportation Board presiding. The board, at San Jacinto's urging, already had determined that an environmental impact assessment was warranted before the project could go forward. The meetings were meant to discuss the scope of the environmental analysis.

Many who participated were dismayed that transportation board officials seemed unaware of the communities along Highway 3. Dana White, the board's environmental protection specialist, concedes that the agency was not fully cognizant of the situation on the ground in Houston. However, she points out, a primary purpose of the meetings was to solicit public input.

"There's supposed to be cooperation and dialogue," she says. "I believe we're beginning to have a full scope of the concerns along the GH&H."

Numerous local leaders have jumped into the battle against the railroad. In February, U.S. Representative Gene Green, D-Houston, wrote to the Surface Transportation Board, stating his opposition to the project. The letter, also signed by Houston Mayor Lee Brown, Harris County Judge Robert Eckels, Port of Houston Authority Chairman Jim Edmonds and U.S. Representative Nick Lampson, D-Beaumont, urged the board to press Burlington Northern and Union Pacific into negotiations to find an alternative "that would be responsive to the voice of a concerned community while still serving the long term goal of industrial and economic development."

On March 6, Houston City Council entered the fray, unanimously approving a resolution against the proposed rail.

"Competition is good, but not at the expense of damaging our neighborhoods," says Carol Alvarado, the sponsor of the resolution.

With the controversy at a boiling point, Burlington Northern has turned a hungry eye on its rival. In a March 1 letter to Union Pacific, Burlington Northern Executive Vice President Charles Schultz put forth a proposal for the two rail companies to share existing lines to do away with the need for the new track.

The proposal calls for Union Pacific to give Burlington Northern access to the Bayport Industrial District through the corridors parallel to highways 146 and 225. Schultz also suggested that the two companies share Burlington Northern tracks to shift current chemical traffic off the GH&H line. In addition, he called for infrastructure improvements to ease congestion.

Union Pacific blasted the plan as "totally inadequate." The company spent $6 billion to acquire Southern Pacific, in part to gain exclusive access to Bayport, officials said.

"This proposal is so far away from offering us a fair return on that investment, that the perception it creates is that the purpose of the offer is more to reduce the political and public pressure on the [San Jacinto] project than to start meaningful discussions on a negotiated settlement," wrote Jack Koraleski, Union Pacific's executive vice president, in response to Burlington Northern's proposal.

Union Pacific found the timing of its competitor's call for infrastructure enhancements suspect. Burlington Northern already is operating well beyond its capacity, causing many of the street blockages in the East End and elsewhere, says Joe Adams, Union Pacific's Houston representative. For years, Union Pacific has complained that its rival has avoided making improvements, he says.

Even as the railroad heavyweights slug it out, the San Jacinto partnership continues to gun for its new track, undeterred by the public outcry, according to San Jacinto spokesman Henry de La Garza. The ball is now in the Surface Transportation Board's court. Residents looking for the two-member board to save the day may well be disappointed. Of the 30 construction cases the agency has ruled on in the last ten years, it has denied only one application outright, says Dana White. In other cases, an applicant was not granted its first choice of routes, but got to build an alternative.

Speaking from her Washington, D.C., office, White seems genuinely taken aback by the intense opposition to the San Jacinto rail. She urges a reporter to talk to the project's supporters. When asked which supporters specifically, she answers, "The chemical companies who employ a good many people in the area."

The Surface Transportation Board will complete the environmental analysis over an unspecified period of time, she says, and then make a ruling on the San Jacinto proposal.

Meanwhile, the resistance continues to grow.

"It's going to cost them a lot more than $80 million," vows state Representative Rick Noriega, D-Houston. "We're going to fight it."


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